Critical Selling Skills That Distinguish Top Performers


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Last week, Tim Ohai and I were talking about the future of selling.  We got onto a discussion of the critical skills needed for high performers.

I’ve continued to think about this over the past few days.  I’ve narrowed things down to the top 3 skills critical for top performers.  I’d like your take on it, because most sales training programs don’t seem to include these.

First, all the usual traditional skills are table stakes.  You must master the “advanced,” methodologies currently on the market:  Product knowledge, business acumen, customer/industry/market knowledge, financial knowledge, consultative/insight/solutions/value based/customer focused/challenger and related programs.  You must master the traditional selling basics, all the stuff like building relationships/trust, prospecting, pipeline management, deal/opportunity strategy, sales call planning/execution, questioning, qualifying, probing, presenting, objection handling, closing, oral/written presentation skills, and the myriad of foundation skills.  And of course, you know how to leverage all the traditional tools like

If you haven’t mastered all of these, you’re toast.  You just won’t be able to play in today’s world of complex buying.  You might as well pack up your notebook and go home.  You won’t survive, let alone be a top performer in any but the most basic (read low paying) sales environments.

But what about the future?

I’m not talking about 5 to 10 years from now, I’m talking about this year, next year and the coming year.  What are the top 3 skills that set consistent top performers apart from everyone else?

Tim and I went through a lot of wordsmithing in our conversation.  We originally wanted to get it to the top 2, but finally settled on these 3 skills.  Consistent top performers are:

  • Obsessesive learners.
  • Relentless in execution.
  • Collaborative problem solvers.

Let me dive into these.

Top performers take control over their learning and development.  They don’t wait for management to provide them training—though they leverage any training their company provides to the utmost.  Top performers recognize there are no easy answers (this links to collaborative problem solving).  They recognize we live in a world where time/space are increasingly compressed, the issues people and organizations face are increasing in complexity.  They recognize to help their customers and to meet their own internal performance expectations, they must constantly be learning.  They learn from every source they can–their managers, their peers, their customers, their competitors.  They are voracious readers and students.  They constantly search for that nugget of knowledge that gives them insight, so they in turn might provide others insight.

They are simultaneously very focused and very diverse in their learning.  They see a problem and are driven to learn about it so they can help solve it (see the connection to execution).  They are very diverse in their learning.  They read books, newspapers, blogs on various disciplines.  They don’t just single thread on sales–they know how limiting it is, they read biographies, history, economic, politics, fiction.  They look outside their company, markets, and industries.  They have a diverse network they tap into for ideas.

Top performers don’t learn just to learn, they learn to apply it in their own personal growth, the growth of their organizations, and their customers.  They don’t wait for things to happen, they make them happen.  They see opportunities, challenges, and problems and are driven to solve them.  We immediately recognize them.  They are constantly moving, they are constantly in action.  They are constantly engaged, both internally and externally in doing things–in applying their knowledge to achieve for themselves, their organizations, and customers.

In their drive to execute, they sometimes fail, they make mistakes.  But they seek to have their experience inform them–learning, analyzing, growing, refining, adjusting and tuning.

Top performers are problem solvers—but in a different way.  They recognize the only way they can solve problems is collaboratively.  They recognize no one has all the answers, but that by working with others they can discover the answers.  Since they are driven to get things done-to execute, they recognize they can only do this by working with others.  They recognize, perhaps unconsciously, that the problem solving process, working with others is a learning process–for each person involved.  Each problem is an opportunity to learn, to grow, to achieve.

Top performers are different.  They are always asking questions, they have ideas, they are curious, they are always active and engaged, they are driven to achieve–addressing new opportunities, solving problems and moving forward.

Each of us has it in ourselves to be a top performer.  It starts with mastery of basic capabilities (the table stakes issues), but then we have to not be satisfied with this, we have to push, always learning, always applying that learning through execution, constantly looking for opportunities and problems to address.


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